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Restrictive and byzantine policies governing free speech and expression on University of Nebraska campuses helped instigate a high-profile incident between an undergraduate and a graduate student lecturer last year, free speech experts said Saturday.

A new "Commitment to Free Expression" adopted by the NU Board of Regents in January did nothing to solve the problem, the panel at the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska's annual meeting said, with some members adding it may in fact lead to more problems in the future.

But state Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings, sponsor of a bill requiring NU to report "barriers to free speech" earlier this year who was invited to take part in the panel, said no policy would have prevented what he called the bullying of an undergraduate student promoting  Turning Point USA by a graduate student and employee of UNL's English Department.

Courtney Lawton's protest of the recruiting event hosted by Kaitlyn Mullen for the conservative student group drew national attention, and led the university to examine its policies governing free speech on campus.

In a lengthy rebuke of AFCON and others, Halloran said the incident illustrated his belief that faculty members are only interested in protecting their own academic freedom, and not extending the same consideration to students, particularly those with conservative views.

"Where was the Faculty Senate's moral outrage when an assistant graduate teacher made accusatory and defamatory judgments toward a paying sophomore student?" he added. "Their silence was deafening."

He cited the decision of the UNL Faculty Senate to remove Jeffrey Rudy as president after Rudy vocally disagreed with the Senate's choice to present two members of the English faculty an academic freedom award, and had accused faculty of leaking information to the press without evidence.

"He dared to make a stand and with the freedom of speech that he could not in good conscious give the academic freedom award to those who defend bullying," Halloran said, which led to "moral outrage" from the faculty.

Halloran said he's heard of faculty members quizzing students about their religious or political beliefs, attempting to indoctrinate students, and punishing them if they did not adhere to faculty members' world view, although he did not offer specifics on those alleged incidents.

But John Bender, a professor of journalism who specializes in media law and First Amendment issues, said that's not the case, at least among the majority of faculty at UNL and other institutions around the country.

"We don't see our job as to indoctrinate, we see our job as helping students learn for themselves, to provide them the tools to think through problems and develop solutions," Bender said.

If he offers an opinion in class, Bender said he makes it clear to his students that that's all it is: "They are not expected to adhere to that, and for the most part, they don't."

Saturday's AFCON meeting was called to discuss what members say are problems of NU's new policies on free expression.

Amy Miller, legal director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said she's communicated concerns that the new policy adds burdens for individuals seeking to use public areas on campus, such as requiring them to apply for a permit 30 business days in advance.

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That could squash spontaneous protests, such as those against a self-proclaimed white nationalist on campus, or it could have squelched a hypothetical celebration for students who supported Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, Miller said.

She also said the policy bans "speech that unlawfully discriminates," without specifying what that means, potentially leaving the door open for the administration to cut off speech on campus, and the idea of "designated public forums" outlined in the new policy limit where expression can take place, potentially causing future problems.

But the small gathering repeatedly turned back to the August 2017 dust-up on the Union Plaza.

With clearer policies in place, Miller said there would have been no question about the legitimacy of Mullen's tabling event by staff telling her to move to a so-called "free-speech zone."

Halloran said whatever UNL's policies were at the time didn't matter. He said the incident was created when a university employee shut down the free speech of a student.

Members present responded to Halloran, saying that Lawton, too, was a student, and was removed from her position, which was also a violation of her free speech and drew censure from a national faculty association, the latest in a long line of faculty being removed for controversial speech matters dating back more than half a century.

Sam Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who has written several books on free speech, said in his keynote speech before the panel that incidents such as the Turning Point USA protest indicate that free speech is alive and well in America.

"Ongoing controversies are our free-speech tradition," Walker said. "It's the controversy that gives flesh and blood to the Bill of Rights."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.


Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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